Networking events. Mixers. Meet-ups. These hotbeds of cold cheese cubes and awkward conversation seem mandatory for many professions — especially creative ones, where a lot of us work solo and meeting people in the industry can be tough. But do you really have to put on your nicest polo shirt and dad jeans (or comfy heels and khaki skirt), think up something humorous to put on your name tag, and collect every kitschy business card in the joint just to make new professional connections?
Of course not.
Mixers and meet-ups are technically designed to serve two purposes: If you’re unemployed or underemployed, they’re supposed to offer a foot in the door at area companies who may need your services. If you’re happily employed or work for yourself, the main goal is to meet people who enrich your personal and professional life in some way. But more than that, they exist so that companies can find potential new talent, hand out swag, and tell people itching to make connections what they’re up to. That’s why they’re usually sponsored within an inch of their lives, with food from local restaurants and keychains from every startup in a 10-mile radius.
Which isn’t to say that they never result in fostering salient relationships — any time a lot of people in the same or similar industries gather, at least two people will have something to offer each other — but it is to say that networking events themselves tend to establish a culture that isn’t always effective or even enjoyable.
“The problem with ‘networking events,'” writes Matt Perman, “is that they are typically based on the ‘me first’ model of networking… If you are networking first of all for what you can get out of people, you’ve blown it. That’s not networking — that’s schmoozing.”
Author and business consultant Dorie Clark calls this “instrumental networking,” and points out that that’s when networking begins to feel sleazy.
“You are literally treating people like a tool,” when you approach networking like that, says Dorie. “That really is the wrong way to do it. People can feel that. Nobody likes to be treated that way.”
Instead, says Dorie, approach networking as a way to “build real, honest relationships.” Which you can do without coming anywhere near an event that features wine in plastic cups.
For starters, social media has made networking events a lot less relevant because, with the advent of Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and Google+, all of the “networking” you might want to do can be done over, well, the ‘net. In fact, you can do it even better that way.
One of the biggest issues with networking events is that it’s difficult to actually get to know someone’s mission in such a brief, contrived setting. On social media, you have a much better chance of finding out what a person in your field or a related field is passionate about, what they’re working on, and how your relationship might be mutually beneficial. If you’re looking to meet people in your region, in areas of interest, try finding them on Twitter and following them.
This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many small business owners, freelancers, and other creative entrepreneurs neglect to seek out and communicate with people over this very-useful medium, because they just don’t see it as a networking tool. Twitter is also a great way to forge personal-ish relationships with a potential employer, so long as you don’t approach them hounding for a job.
Facebook groups are another great way to share ideas and communicate. Though Facebook is usually seen as more of way for real friends to connect, groups make it easy to meet people without actually having to be friends with them. Groups for young professionals, fellow photographers, those who are interested in the same genre as you — all of these people gather in a way that offers real assistance and support, without the sometimes-uncomfortable conversation that networking events breed.
You can also meet potential new professional connections the old-fashioned way: Through mutual friends or colleagues. Asking to be set up with people in the community who you find interesting is pretty common, and is a lot more direct than hovering near them at a networking event as you attempt to introduce yourself in a way that isn’t completely weird. Just make sure you’re considerate of their time, keep it short — and come prepared with a plan and a goal in mind.
Of course, there’s always the off-chance that you actually enjoy wearing a lanyard with your name on it and shaking hands with 30 new people within the span of 45 minutes, which is totally fine, if that’s your style. But if you are going to attend networking events, just make sure you’re approaching them like you would any new friendship opportunity — as a way to make connections that matter, not as a way to get what you need out of someone else.